Taxpayers would have to foot bill for new high-tech police powers, wireless industry says
Industry group says data interception and retention technology would be expensive
Police, Power and Privacy is a special five-part investigative series that looks at why police across the country want new powers to track tech-savvy suspects, and why privacy advocates say they should be denied.
Canada's top telecommunications industry group says any government move to force its members to install equipment to intercept digital traffic and store data to aid police investigations would have to be covered by taxpayers.
"We have always submitted that there should be a mechanism for the government to cover the costs or possibly law enforcement," said Kurt Eby, director of regulatory affairs and government relations for the Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association.
"Every time the government looks to add a layer such as this, there is going to be cost incurred."
Police are lobbying for laws that would require telecommunications and internet service providers to retain user data like email, text and call records, and force those same companies to build intercept capabilities into their networks to enable investigators to tap digital communications.
There is currently no regulation to require telecommunications companies to store data for any length of time.
Once police open an investigation, they can obtain a warrant and begin to track a suspect's data. The problem, they argue, is due to inconsistent storage practices in the industry, historical data that could be crucial to the investigation has often already been deleted or lost.
"There's nothing worse than trying to go and recreate somebody's movements through cell sites or to deduce who the offender is and the data's all been destroyed," RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson told CBC News and the Toronto Star.
Eby says communications companies will comply with whatever new measures the federal government enacts, but he says a major concern for the industry is the security of customers' information.
Every time the government looks to add a layer such as this, there is going to be cost incurred.- Kurt Eby, the Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association.
"We want to make sure that whatever the requirement is — that it can be complied with in a way that negates any possibility of this data being breached and falling into anyone's hands other than someone who has the lawful authority to review it," he said.
"How long are you going to hold this data for? Where is it going to be?"
RCMP Chief Supt. Jeff Adam points to Australia as a model for Canada to consider. Legislators there recently implemented a two-year data retention regulation.
He says police in Canada would be required to obtain a warrant before accessing the data and any mandatory retention would only apply to "metadata" — in the case of phone calls, the historical transaction records of who-called-who when, and not the actual content of messages.
Critics argue it's not safe to keep data longer than is strictly necessary for business purposes due to the heightened risk of data breaches and hacking.
Chris Parsons, a technology and privacy researcher at the University of Toronto's Citizen Lab, says the Australian experience has been plagued by problems, including the fact it's forced some smaller companies out of business due to the costs.
He also believes mandatory data retention in Canada would create a chill among citizens, who would self-censor knowing the state is mandating collection of their records.
"It's an immediate state of suspicion," Parsons said.
"It means that citizens may speak less, associate less, do less online on the basis that they are concerned what it could be."
"It would be equally very helpful," he continued, "to have a surveillance camera in every room that we were in. And police would never access it except under judicial warrant when they know something has gone wrong. But I don't think many Canadians want a surveillance camera in every room they're in because something might go wrong."
Former Ontario privacy commissioner Ann Cavoukian says it may be possible to accommodate the police desire for data retention and to build in protections for customers.
"If it had to be done, we could ensure that the data were encrypted and put in a vault, if you will. You have to have provisions that would protect the data very strongly."
The second police proposal the government is considering in its green paper on national security is to force communications providers to install mandatory interception equipment into all networks.
For decades, telephone companies have had the ability to assist law enforcement, with a warrant from a judge, to intercept phone calls. But there's been an explosion in wireless and internet providers in recent years, many of which don't have the same infrastructure as their bigger rivals, leaving police unable to easily tap digital communications like cellphone calls, emails and text messages.
RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson says nearly 70 per cent of telecommunications companies can't comply with interception orders from the courts.
CBC News and the Toronto Star this week reported details from ten ongoing RCMP investigations in which police say they hit digital roadblocks. In four cases, police obtained warrants to intercept suspects' communications, but the phone or internet providers lacked the equipment or capability.
For example, the RCMP provided details of one investigation in Eastern Canada where investigators obtained warrants to monitor a group of terrorism suspects. The phone of one of the prime targets was connecting to multiple cellular networks, none of which had interception capabilities. The Mounties spent two months and $250,000 to engineer a custom tool to intercept the communications.
Police, Power and Privacy: A five-part series
The telecommunications industry says it would comply with mandatory interception requirements if they become law, but it would be difficult and expensive to keep up with technological advances.
"What people are using in terms of messaging apps, the way they are communicating and the way the technology works is going to be vastly different at the end of the month, or different at the end of the year," Eby said.
"And you invest in that and then that technology is obsolete by the time you try to use those systems, then that doesn't really benefit anyone."